10 Apr 2019

Prison death inquests: Legal aid for bereaved families compared to representation for prison and probation staff

Last week the death in the segregation unit of Peterborough prison of a 47-year-old mother Annabella Landsberg, from Zimbabwe, was roundly condemned by an inquest jury. The prison ombudsman described the events as ‘shocking’.

Her sister Sandra sat through the entire three-week hearing. She was lucky. She had legal aid. It stretched to paying for her to stay in a hotel in Huntingdon where the hearing was taking place.

She lives in Worthing with her family so it worked out cheaper than making 270 miles round trip everyday which would have taken at least 5 hours.
But the legal aid agency would not pay for her meals or childcare.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner had to come out of her own pocket. She works as a carer. Her earnings don’t go far, especially with 2 young children.
But I stress again she’s lucky. So many families get nothing.

To coincide with a Commons debate the campaign group Inquest released some telling figures about just how skewed the system is for those whose loved ones end up dead behind bars.

An FOI to the Ministry of Justice reveals in 2017 just £92,000 was granted by the Legal Aid Agency to families to have a lawyer at prison death inquests in 65 cases. In the same year £4.2 million in total was spent on the legal representation for prison and probation staff at inquests.

So the state get almost 46 times more than that paid out to bereaved families.

The MoJ has still not been forthcoming on details behind its refusal to accept automatic funding for families and how it comes to an estimated annual cost figure of £70 million.

But the FOI figures expose a judicial process which many will view as manifestly unfair. In a parliamentary debate today MPs gave numerous examples of where they said the odds were stacked against ‘the victim’s’ family. One notable example was the 2015 Shoreham air crash which killed 11. Tim Loughton MP revealed their families have so far been denied legal aid for an inquest later this year.

The Justice Minister Lucy Fraser said the issues were still under review but that the legal aid agency had funded 339 inquest legal cost applications in the past two years.